Inside marketing’s elusive Quixote quest for digital ad transparency

Marc Pritchard, the marketer with the keys to Procter & Gamble’s $8 billion ad budget in the U.S., is calling for more transparency from digital platforms. You know what that means — it’s that special time of year when marketers dust off their soapboxes and preach about the virtues of honesty and clarity in advertising.

No sooner had Pritchard, P&G’s chief brand officer, dropped those remarks at the Association of National Advertisers’ Media Conference last week, than marketers, figuratively speaking, joined hands in a show of solidarity.

A quick glance at the social buzz surrounding Pritchard’s words reveals just how much they stirred the pot. There were enthusiastic nods of agreement punctuated by exclamation marks, messages laden with supportive emojis, and even the occasional #ROAS thrown in for good measure.

Once again, the world’s most high-profile marketer had thrust transparency back into the spotlight, making it the talk of the marketing town.

But let’s be real — usually, it’s all talk and no walk, isn’t it?

Sure, there are baby steps — an audit here, a consulting firm hire there — but rarely do they result in marketers taking tangible steps toward transparency.

Just look at the so-called debate over made-for-arbitrage sites for proof.

Yet, upon closer inspection, there are indeed glimmers of real change. It may not be much, admittedly, but it’s a start — one that’s long overdue.

And nowhere is this clearer than in how marketers are demanding more clarity on what happens to their hard-earned cash once it’s poured into Google’s ad machine following a string of recent snafus. They’ve talked about it countless times before, but now they’re actually making moves — and they’ve got the battle scars to prove it: agency changes, ad tech upheaval and in-housing, to name a few.

In fact, one particular marketer has gone above and beyond by hiring an independent consultant to work alongside its agency in this transparency drive.

They’ve asked the agency to secure as much data on their advertising in Google’s ecosystem as possible so the consultant can analyze it. That says a lot about the agency’s capabilities — or lack thereof — as well as the sheer complexity of the task at hand, which in itself is a microcosm for one of the underlying dynamics at the root of the transparency issue.

“We’ve been wrangling with our agency to get that data from Google but the problem is we’re not able to access it fast,” said the marketer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to Digiday.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Once they’ve got their hands on the data, they’ve got to analyze it, package it up and present it in a way that makes sense to the senior executives in the boardroom. Because, let’s be clear, this isn’t just about showing them how much money is being flushed down the drain — it’s about making that money work smarter, not harder.

Well, maybe to a certain extent.

Marketers — not this one, to be fair — are sounding off about transparency and putting the hard yards in to get some clarity on what they actually buy from Google’s sprawling marketplace, all while funneling more of those dollars into non-transparent, performance-focused, generative AI-based ad products from the same company.

It’s a paradox worth pondering. Some marketers certainly have done this, and they’ve concluded that even taking one step forward and two steps back can lead to progress by providing valuable lessons, fostering resilience and prompting necessary adjustments for more effective advancement. Better to do something, even if it’s imperfect, than nothing at all.

After all, marketers are publicly judged on social good but are privately rewarded financially. Reconciling these two sides is like trying to untangle a knot in a string: Progress is made, but there’s always a point where the threads resist further unraveling.

From Digiday’s talks with marketers over the past year or so, these efforts focus on a few key areas: setting their own KPIs that directly tie to real outcomes, avoiding proxy metrics or gamed methods, and shifting the role of agents in driving real outcomes rather than just boosting media spend.

“Several years ago the transparency issue was either a box to be checked for marketers or something that was buttoned up and put away,” said Jay Friedman, CEO of independent media and marketing services firm Goodway Group. “Now, for the first time there are more marketers we’re talking to who say, ‘I see this as a potential for a competition advantage.'”

Admittedly, Friedman’s view might be colored by Goodway Group’s vested interest in transparency. However, this also positions them at the forefront of change.

Essentially, this shift means moving away from simply assessing whether issues like MFAs, fraud or ad viewability rates are high or low, and instead delving into the specifics behind them. This approach allows advertisers to comprehend why certain actions are flagged as fraudulent, for example, empowering them to make more informed decisions about their ad inventory purchases.

Now, skeptics might roll their eyes and say “we’ve heard this song and dance before,” perhaps even here. But the difference is technology and services have leveled up for marketers. They’re doing things now that were unthinkable before: real-time insights into publisher clutter, instant alerts for unnoticed ads, questions like, “How much of that newspaper went unread?” and, “Did Nielsen miss the mark on cable ratings again due to its sample size?”

It’s not a whole new ball game by any means, but it is a game of inches, where small adjustments in budget allocation can eventually ladder up to significant gains in efficiency and effectiveness.

Anti-fraud and security researcher Augustine Fou shared a recent exchange with a client along these lines. The marketer in question told him that the ad verification tool they use shows that the ads they buy have between 80% and 90% chance of being seen — and have done for years. But the reading they get from Fou’s tool puts that percentage at closer to 40%. The difference had the marketer puzzled.

According to Fou, the explanation was quite simple: The technology they were initially using wasn’t designed to measure the likelihood of those ads being seen on mobile apps — it was tailored for static pages, not mobile ones.

As always, the root of the problem here is a lack of understanding. This is complicated stuff, and marketers haven’t had much incentive to unpick it. However, that’s changing, thanks to a bunch of reasons that more often than not come back to something Adam Chugg, head of data and tech at the7stars, said: Ultimately, advertisers need business results, and these can only be delivered through serving ads in the right environments.

This means advertisers have to take a long look at their own actions, not just point the finger at everyone else. As this trend grows, the conversation around transparency is evolving from a simple tale of advertisers being shortchanged to a more nuanced dialogue.

“There’s no silver bullet to get to full transparency on working media, which is something marketers are more acutely aware of these days,” said Ryan Kangisser, the managing partner of strategy at media advisory firm Mediasense. “This means they’re more focused on buying the right thing, not just doing it at the lowest possible price.”

A recent exchange Digiday had with a marketer brought this into sharp focus.

The marketer acknowledged that transparency efforts are most feasible within direct supply chains, such as between agencies and DSPs, where discrepancies can be easily identified. They explained that the ad tech they use to place programmatic bids (demand-side platforms) often employ intricate fee models, charging percentages on total spend, including media, data and additional fees, while also engaging in revenue-sharing deals. But they admitted that despite complexities, the actual difference in fees may not be substantial.

Ultimately, the inability to measure accurately shouldn’t be mistaken for the absence of a gap. There are many reasons why the data needed to track that spending is hard to access.

One of those reasons is privacy: Contractual limitations on sharing log-level data are primarily driven by privacy concerns and business requirements, complicating efforts to achieve complete transparency while maintaining data integrity and user privacy.

It’s the sort of perspective that gives execs at agencies like Goodway Group and the7stars hope. They’ve staked their businesses on this sort of thinking becoming more widespread to the point where — in the7stars’ case, at least — they’re actually building tech and services.

Last year, the7Stars introduced Prospero, a “fully transparent” programmatic advertising platform. Aptly named for its clarity, Prospero is fueled by technology from the French programmatic firm Hawk. The goal is to procure all ad inventory directly from the platform, giving the agency control over prices for both technology and data. With access to detailed log-level data on both the supply and demand sides of programmatic auctions, the7Stars can meticulously track how their clients’ ad budgets are allocated, ensuring transparency and maximizing efficiency.

It’s a radical solution for a complex challenge, but necessity drives innovation, as they say.

Whether these innovations are more widely (and tightly) embraced really comes down to one thing: behavioral change. The challenges with transparency, be it financial or data-related, boil down to unrealistic price expectations and skewed incentives. If that sounds too pessimistic, then look at why many of the loudest talking marketers on transparency continue to be some of the biggest hurdles to it being achieved.

“If advertisers wanted this supposed transparency so badly, they would have it by now,” said Tom Triscari, the consultant who finished the ANA’s report on the state of transparency in programmatic last year. They don’t have it because it is not a true priority but somehow they have been put in a position to talk about it like it’s meaningful. Transparency is an illusion until you want to make it real which can at any time if you want to.

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